Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In the Footsteps of Darwin: Up Close and Personal with Galapagos Wildlife

Sea lion pup
(I’m going to apologize in advance because this probably isn’t going to be my most inspired blog post ever. I came back from the Galapagos sick and am still feeling blah, so I’m not at my creative best. But bear with me – the Galagagos Islands are worth hearing about, even with less-than-stellar writing!)

I left July 4th on a very early flight from Quito, after getting to the airport promptly at 5:15 a.m. as requested; the check-in desk finally opened about half an hour later and we could deal with the formalities of boarding. It’s a small world among Galapagos passengers, I discovered, as I met a few of my fellow boat passengers in line at the airport check-in desk!

How seriously they take the management of the Galapagos Islands was apparent from my airport arrival on. All of your luggage is carefully x-rayed and (in some cases, hand-searched) to ensure that you’re not bringing any foreign plant or animal material to the islands; they’ve been fighting an ongoing battle since the establishment of the park in 1959 to eradicate all of the introduced species, so they don’t want to accidentally introducing a few more. Overhead lockers on the planes (and all of the hand luggage inside) are disinfected and sprayed with insecticide before the plane lands in the islands, as a further precaution.

When you get to the islands, this care and oversight remains apparent. Tour boats all have carefully planned and fixed itineraries from which they cannot deviate; should they remain past their scheduled time in any one location, a GPS tracking system notifies park management, who will get in touch with the boat’s captain to hurry him along.

Monetarily, too, it’s a serious business getting there. On top of the $400 flight to get there (for foreigners – it’s cheaper for Ecuadorians), and the cost of the boat tour, there’s a $100 entrance fee that you must pay at the airport, for the privilege of setting boat on Galapagos and a $10 tourist card that you must purchase. Both of these are checked again when you leave, and if you were so careless as to throw them away, you must purchase them again.  (Fortunately, I keep everything as souvenirs so still had them both.)

Almost everyone who goes there joins a boat tour – 97% of the islands are national park (the other 3% being the towns and farms that predate its establishment), and they’re much further flung than I had realized, so there’s really no other practical way to see much of the place. Much of the places that you’re allowed to see, that is – of the 97% that is national park (including marine), only 1% of that area is open to visitors, and only then on carefully laid out walking trails and clearly delineated sites. The rest of the land and sea is left to the animals and birds and reptiles and fish – who are, after all, the stars of the show and the reason everyone comes here in the first place.

The islands are visually stunning, but not what I expected – they are `young` volcanic islands (meaning only about 9 million years old or so, compared with Hawaii`s 90 million years) so are still very rocky and sparsely vegetated in many places. There`s even an active volcano or two still around, and the ongoing process of creation continues as new islands are being formed. Humans arrived here a couple of hundred years ago and, of course, immediately set about bringing in all the animals they were used to from home (and a few others tagged along accidentally, like black rats and flies on ships) – many of these became serious threats to the local wildlife and a few native species have become extinct.

But the Galapagos Islands are rebounding. One island – Espanola – has been completely restored, with all non-native plants and animals eliminated and indigenous species flourishing. Not all of the islands are at that point yet, but the efforts continue – all of the national park staff and the tourism operators working here seem to take their responsibilities very seriously, and understand what a magical and irreplaceable part of the world that has been entrusted to their care.

And the animals themselves? By all appearances thriving, and not at all bothered by the tourists who come to gawk at them. They act like bored celebrities who can’t be bothered to notice the surrounding paparazzi – at most, you might get a curious sea lion lifting its head to check you out briefly, but odds are he’ll go back to sleep almost immediately. It’s up to YOU, the interloper, to get out of THEIR way, not the other way around; I got used to stepping over iguanas and tortoises or circling snoozing sea lions, and keeping a careful eye out for seabird nests on the path so I didn’t accidentally crush an egg or a chick. At one point, a cantankerous bull sea lion blocked our way back to the dock; it took a determined effort and a lot of shouting from our guide to convince him to shuffle his tremendous bulk out of the way. (He was too big to just step over – plus he would probably have bitten us.)

I loved them all, from the pint-sized prehistoric monsters that are iguanas, to the countless species of birds, to the playful and inquisitive sea lions, to the tiny Galapagos penguin (smallest species in the world after New Zealand`s fairy penguin). But my favourites are probably the tortoises – these gigantic beasts can live at least 200 years, and weigh up to 250 kg. A couple of tortoises that Darwin brought back from his 1832 expedition are still living in zoos in England; one that used to live in Sydney Zoo just died recently. They`re incredible beasts – so ugly they`re captivating, and quite dignified and charming in their slow and ponderous way.

150-year-old Galapagos tortoise
Most tortoise species are coming back from the brink of extinction – they used to be a favourite food of sailors, as live turtles could be stored on board ship for up to a year – thanks to successful breeding programs in a couple of research stations. Only one species has dwindled down to a single survivor -- `Lonesome George`, as he`s called, is a male tortoise aged about 100, who was discovered nearly 40 years ago on one of the islands. No other survivors of his species have ever been found, and efforts to interest George in genetically-compatible females from similar species have thus far been unsuccessful. So George remains, a happy middle-aged bachelor (remember he`s probably going to live to be 200) with no prospect of little Georges on the horizon. Hopefully in another 100 years he`ll have worked out his commitment issues, or his species won`t survive.

I did realize, though, that -- despite the fact I fall in love with wildlife -- I`d make a terrible naturalist. We encountered an orphaned sea lion pup on one island, desperately skinny and crying plaintively for his mother – our guide told us that he probably wouldn`t survive more than a few days.  I`d have liked nothing better right then than to scoop up that pup, take him back to the boat and feed him all the fish his little sea lion heart could desire, before taking him back to Canada as my new pet (wonder what Toronto`s laws are on sea lions?). As a naturalist, my job would be exactly what our guide’s was: watch dispassionately and let nature take its course. It would break my heart every time I saw it – nature’s a bitch.

I didn’t see most of the marine life that my fellow passengers saw, as I still haven’t conquered my fear of snorkelling (the Great Barrier Reef experience wasn’t a fluke) -- make that “extreme panic attacks and conviction that I am about to die” reaction to snorkelling, as “fear” just isn’t a strong enough word. I did manage, by the end of the week, to swim a few strokes while breathing through the tube, but it took every ounce of willpower I possess. (Perhaps I should start in a bathtub and work up from there; attempting to snorkel in the open ocean just isn’t working for me.)  So I had to content myself with watching the sea turtles and sharks and sting rays from the boat; fortunately the water’s very clear and I still got a pretty good view.

We had at least 2, sometimes 3 or 4, landings or snorkelling trips a day, since it was a small boat with just 11 passengers – quick to load us all on and off. So we covered a lot of ground in 8 days, and retired to the catamaran (the very comfortable Nemo II) each night for dinner and socializing. Food was included – 3 sumptuous meals a day, and decadent snacks every time we got back on board the boat – but for a couple of days near the end I had to pass on most of it. I don`t think I was seasick, but I was definitely sick; climbing up and down a ladder from a berth to a tiny bathroom several times a night on a small boat in rolling seas is not an experience I`d rush to repeat.

I`m still a little queasy, so I`m not venturing far into Quito. I`m heading to a hotel near the airport tomorrow night (as my flight leaves at 6 a.m.), but if I feel a little better I may go see something of the city tomorrow. I`m not terribly bothered if I can`t, though – Quito`s Old Town, where I`m currently staying, is a lovely old historical part of town, but after four months of baroque cathedrals and Spanish colonial architecture I won`t feel too deprived if I miss exploring ONE city`s highlights. You can get colonial-church-ed out after a while, and sometimes one more museum is just one too many.

So I`ll just have to come back one day – to go have my picture taken on the equator line, if nothing else! – to Quito and to the rest of Ecuador. I thought when I started this trip that I’d see more of the country, but time has run away from me ... and there are a lot of interesting places to go, so a return trip is definitely on the agenda at some point.

And in just over 48 hours from now, I’ll be back in Toronto – I will be mostly happy, a little sad that this phase of travel is over but glad to stay put for a little while in familiar surroundings. And happy to have peanut butter for breakfast again ... so Shelley, make sure the place is well-stocked!

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